Who Do We Think We Are? (Physician-Assisted Suicide)

Oregon’s Physician Assisted Suicide Measure was discussed and debated in 1994. I want to begin by reading to you from my reflections written just after the measure passed, because I want to capture what really happened, and the sweeping implications not just socially, but morally and theologically:

Who do we think we are? The question haunts me.

Today, November 10, 1994, the outcome has been declared official. The state of Oregon became the first jurisdiction in the history of the human race to legalize physician-assisted suicide. Even the Netherlands (which commonly practices it) and Nazi Germany (which practiced it in its involuntary form) were not so bold and presumptuous as to pretend to legitimize it through making it legal. No one on the planet has ever done that until now.

Even the American Medical Association declared its opposition to Measure 16. The Oregon Medical Association remained “neutral” on the fuzzy matter of whether it is inconsistent for healers to become killers. (Update: I’m happy to say the OMA has now decided it is in favor of repealing Measure 16.) When the desensitized conscience of a group like the AMA, which defends the destruction of unborn children, is actually deeply concerned about the ethics of a measure, you know how bad it must be. Measure 16 is indeed that bad. And worse.

On election night, when men imagine morality is determined by ballots and anecdotes, an Oregon man lamented before television cameras that to make her “final exit” his wife had to put the plastic bag over her own head and he was forced to leave her and take a walk. “If Measure 16 would have been in force,” he said, “I could have assisted her, I could have been there for her.”

Born and raised in Oregon, educated here, having spent my entire life and ministry here, I take Measure 16 personally. I went out early this morning, and as I sipped coffee, I browsed through the Oregonian. A prominent editorial on Measure 16 began like this:

“Oregonians, by passing Measure 16, have made their state the first in the world to cross the boundary line between allowing death to occur in the terminally ill and causing such death to occur. Voters have declared a new personal liberty: the right to medical assistance in choosing the timing and manner of one’s death. It is a sovereign decision, made after much soul-searching, and should be respected as such. Unreasonable regulation must not thwart it.”

I have a few questions about this analysis. Who set that “boundary line” we have now crossed? Where do we get off ignoring the no trespassing sign that says “violators will be shot”? On whose authority do we tread where none have trod before?

Who has the right or authority to “declare a new personal liberty”? Are liberties created by people? Or are they established by God, and merely recognized by people?

How can we have a “right” to medical assistance to kill ourselves when the Scriptures and all who have preceded us in this society and the entire history of medicine all concur that it is morally wrong?

Of course, anyone can violate the standards and kill themselves or kill someone else. But how can we with straight faces declare we have a “right” to do what is by nature wrong? We have an ability to do wrong, naturally. But there is no such thing as the right to do wrong. It is a contradiction in terms.

To lay upon physicians, who vow to do no harm, the responsibility of assisting their patients in suicide should be utterly unthinkable. “Physician-assisted suicide” makes as much sense as “pastor-assisted adultery.”

The Oregonian editorial says voters decided on Measure 16 “after much soul searching.” Really? Does hearing sound bites in the background while traveling to and from the frig with a pop or beer in hand really qualify as “soul searching”?

Is it soul searching to take your cues from a man on a radio ad who announced indignantly “I don’t want to waste my children’s inheritance [to keep himself alive]”. (How long will it be before children say, “I don’t want to waste my inheritance to keep those old folks alive.” Answer: it’s already happening.)

For those who did “search their souls,” I’d suggest we learn to search something more reliable. Many people who have committed horrible crimes have searched their souls before doing so. Instead, “Search the Scriptures.” God’s Word has a moral authority our souls do not.

We are told by the Oregonian that this physician-assisted suicide decision “should be respected.” But why? Because people voted for it? So what? In times past people, even the Supreme Court itself, have voted for slavery. Should that have been respected? In another twenty years we may vote to legalize adults having sex with children. Should we respect that decision too?

*Of all the words that stick out in the Oregonian editorial, the one that grabs me is the word “sovereign.” That’s a theological word, and it cuts to the core of the issue-who shall be God?

It was a “sovereign” decision because . . . why? Because we are in control of the universe? Because we write laws on tablets of stone that come down from Sinai? Hardly. We write laws on tissue paper with blunt pencils and erasers worn off because we have had to rub out so many of our previous moral decrees. Who are we trying to kid? We cannot make sovereign decisions, for one simple reason. We are not sovereign! Only God is.

I hear in our local media the incessant sound of Oregonians slapping themselves on the back, congratulating themselves for one more proof that they do not toe the party line, that they are rugged individualists, fiercely independent. “We’re first again,” they brag. But first in what? It is a badge of honor to be first in righteousness. It is a badge of shame to be first in evil.

I get the impression that if Oregonians declared via ballot measure that a yard is no longer 36 inches, many people would respect that as a sovereign decision. If Oregonians voted that the law of gravity was no longer in force, the media would commend them on their bold initiative. After all, it would be a “sovereign” decision of the people of Oregon.

Canaanite temples have been unearthed, where hollow walls are filled with jars stuffed with the skeletons of little children, who were crammed in them alive. Many nomadic civilizations of the day left out their elderly and sick and handicapped to die. In stark contrast, God commanded the Israelites to honor their father and mothers and care for the weak and vulnerable. Can you imagine if the Canaanites voted and had newspaper editorials? Couldn’t you just see the Canaanites “soul searching” and voting on these issues, exercising their “sovereign” decisions and insisting they be respected?

Pollsters have determined the more educated Oregonians are, the greater likelihood they voted in favor of Measure 16. If this is the product of a college education, it seems this is a lot of time and money to make you stupid enough to believe you are God. If you want to become a fool, there are cheaper ways than going to college! People would be far better off growing up ignorant and illiterate than receiving the kind of education that resulted in voting yes on this measure.

I flip further through today’s newspaper. There’s the story of a woman who threw her newborn baby to be mauled and killed by a pit bull. People are appalled. But I don’t get it. If a few days earlier the same woman had paid a doctor to do to the baby exactly what the pit bull did, it would have been perfectly legal, perfectly acceptable, and anyone who criticized her for it would have been a self-righteous bigot. Same baby, no discernible developmental change, nine months and two days after conception instead of nine months after conception. Same baby. Same woman. Same kind of death. What’s the difference?

Today’s paper is filled with expressions of shock and outrage that a North Carolina woman drowned her two sons. But wasn’t that just a lifestyle choice? Who are these self-righteous bigots condemning this woman who made a soul searching and courageous decision? “Every child a wanted child.”

Susan Smith didn’t feel like she could raise her sons anymore. And giving them up for adoption would have been an agonizing trauma. Who are we to question her choice? She killed them quietly, in the privacy of a lake. Where are all the pro-choice advocates whose self-centered philosophy spawns such killing?

This same woman has been taught by the Supreme Court, the law and the media and the educational system-and an endless parade of politicians-that she had the “sovereign” right to end the life of her children up until the moment they were born. In other words, she had ownership over her children. If they were inconvenient, interfering with her lifestyle, presenting a financial hardship, it was her right to take them out, wasn’t it? “Better that such children not exist than they be raised in a home where they’re not wanted.” In fact, Susan Smith is the poster child for pro-choice America.

Abortion was higher up on the slippery slope, paving the way for the eventual nonconsensual taking of the same classes of people who will volunteer to die via Measure 16. (It is of course utterly foolish to believe euthanasia will remain consensual; it began that way in the Netherlands, and now 70% of killings by physicians are without the patient’s consent.)

Consider what has happened to the medical community in our time. Physicians used to routinely take the ancient Hippocratic Oath. This oath was devised because the line between healers and killers had become blurred. Moral physicians considered their job a sacred task and that’s why they took this sacred oath:

The Oath of Hippocrates, c. 400 BC

I swear by Apollo the physician and . . . all the gods and goddesses, that, according to my ability and judgment, I will keep this Oath . . .

I will impart a knowledge of the Art . . . to disciples bound by a stipulation and oath according to the law of medicine, but to none others . . .

I will apply dietetic measures for the benefit of the sick according to my ability and judgment; I will keep them from harm and injustice.

I will follow that system of regimen which, according to my ability and judgment, I consider for the benefit of my patients, and abstain from whatever is deleterious and mischievous.

I will give no deadly medicine to anyone if asked, nor suggest any such counsel; in like manner I will not give to a woman a pessary to produce abortion.

. . . . I will abstain from every voluntary act of mischief and corruption; and, further, from the seduction of females or males, of freemen and slaves.

. . . While I continue to keep this Oath unviolated, may it be granted to me to enjoy life and the practice of the art, respected by all men, in all times. But should I trespass and violate this Oath, may the reverse be my lot.

Note: A pessary was an oval stone inserted in the vagina to cause an abortion.

The Use of the Hippocratic Oath

A Review of 20th Century Practice and a Content Analysis of Oaths Administered in Medical Schools in the U.S. and Canada in 1993; by Robert D. Orr, M.D. and Norman Pang, M.D:

There has been a progressive and marked increase in percentage of schools administering an oath over the past 65 years. The graduates of 98% of the 150 responding schools took an oath in 1993 while only 26% of schools administered an oath in 1928.

We determined that only one school used the text of the classical Hippocratic Oath, but 68 reported they used other “versions” of the traditional oath.

When we examined the contents of all oaths in current use, we discovered that all still pledge a commitment to patients,

only 43% vow to be accountable for their actions

only 14% include a prohibition against euthanasia

only 11% invoke a deity

only 8% forbid abortion

only 3% retain a proscription against sexual contact with patients.

What happened to the sacred trust between physicians and patients, the vow of the doctor to do no harm? Consider the erosion of trust between doctor and patient when the patient knows that one option the doctor may consider valid is helping take his life.

Once, being a true physician was defined by one’s sacred oath to never participate in or counsel someone toward two practices-physician assisted suicide and abortion. Look at the medical community today. How much has it deteriorated? While researching my ProLife Answers book I came across this statement of The American Medical Association, written in 1871:

There we shall discover an enemy in the camp; there we shall witness as hideous a view of moral deformity as the evil spirit could present. . . . Men who seek not to save, but to destroy; men known not only to the profession, but to the public, as abortionists. . . .

“Thou shalt not kill.” This commandment is given to all, and applies to all without exception. . . . Notwithstanding all this, we see in our midst a class of men, regardless of all principle, regardless of all honor, who daily destroy that fair fabric of God’s creation; who daily pull down what he has built up; who act in antagonism to that profession of which they claim to be members. . . .

It matters not at what state of development his victim may have arrived—it matters not how small or how apparently insignificant it may be—it is a murder, a foul, unprovoked murder; and its blood, like the blood of Abel, will cry from earth to Heaven for vengeance. . . .

Every practicing physician in the land (as well as every good man) has a certain amount of interest at stake in this matter. . . . The members of the profession should form themselves into a special police to watch, and to detect, and bring to justice these characters. They should shrink with horror from all intercourse with them, professionally or otherwise. These men should be marked as Cain was marked; they should be made the outcasts of society.

The American Medical Association, 1871

I have thought about posting a full page add in the Oregonian, “American Medical Association condemns abortion” or “AMA Disowns Abortionists.” Use this exact quote and at the bottom put the date 1871.

Oregon was one of the first states to legalize abortion, in 1969, four years before Roe v. Wade. Measure 16 is its bride, arriving twenty five years later. It is Oregon’s full declaration of independence from God. It is a declaration of war against his sovereignty. If it weren’t so tragic it would be laughable.

In fact, Psalm 2 tells us the Creator does laugh at such things:

Why do the nations conspire and the peoples plot in vain? The kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the LORD and against his Anointed One. “Let us break their chains,” they say, “and throw off their fetters.” The One enthroned in heaven laughs; the Lord scoffs at them. Then he rebukes them in his anger and terrifies them in his wrath, saying, “I have installed my King on Zion, my holy hill.” (Psalms 2:1-6)

Oregon has taken its stand. We have gathered together against the Moral Authority of the universe, and against his Anointed One, Jesus Christ. “Let us break their chains,” we have said, “and throw off their fetters. Let us ignore and violate the eternal laws of God, and make up our own rules.”

How does God respond to our attempt to put his moral laws up for the vote of popular opinion? How does the Most High respond to the pathetic act of arrogance that is Measure 16? He laughs, not the laugh of amusement but of derision. He scoffs at us. And we may expect him to rebuke us in his anger and terrify us in his wrath.

First, we get a wrong answer to the question “Who do we think God is?” Then that led to my question, Who do we think we are? The answer is clear. We think we’re God. Oregon was not first. Lucifer was. We have merely followed in his footsteps. We have joined him in saying, “I will ascend to heaven; I will raise my throne above the stars of God . . . I will ascend above the tops of the cloud; I will make myself like the Most High” (Isaiah 14:12-15). And after all the bravado, where did he end up? The next verse tells us-”But you are brought down to the grave, to the depths of the pit.”

Look out Oregon. Look out America. The saying is more true now than ever before-”If God doesn’t judge us for this, he’ll owe Sodom and Gomorra an apology.”

Update: An amazing thing has happened. Three years after we passed that immoral measure in 1994, we’ve been given a second chance, a chance to repeal the old Measure 16. In November–efforts to change to May-we’ll be voting on this.

And we have a second chance to go to our pastors, our church leaders, our Bible study groups, our neighbors and say this is wrong. And when you give them the information, give them a gospel booklet too. Don’t be ashamed of the gospel, the Word of God, the truth of God.

Read Ezekiel 33. The watchman on the wall–the church, Christians, we who are here today. If we tell people maybe they won’t listen, though in this case there’s a good chance they will. But even if they don’t listen, they will come under the judgment of God, but we won’t.

Literature available

End with this story (share here or in session one):

My father was a self–made man, fiercely independent. He fended for himself thorough the depression, he learned to do everything his way and not trust others. When I became a Christian in high school my father was very resistant. Couldn’t stand Christians. Thought they were all hypocrites. Least likely person to come to Christ I’ve ever known. Told me never wanted me to share gospel again. All those years my mother and I prayed for him, but he remained resistant. After my Mom died, he moved from Gresham to Vancouver, Washington, just across the river. In the spring of 1991 he was diagnosed with terminal cancer.

In November 1991 the state of Washington had a very similar ballot measure that would have legalized physician-assisted suicide. Doctors would have been permitted to issue life-taking drugs to patients on request. Another political issue, a social-moral concern. We shouldn’t get involved. Just preach the gospel and pray, right?

Just two months before the vote, polls showed it almost certain the measure would pass by 5%. Well, some Christians in Washington got together and labored long and hard, and the measure was narrowly defeated.

Two months later I got a call from my 84 year old unsaved father, who lived in Vancouver, Washington. He sounded very distressed and he said, “I’ve called to say good-bye. I’m in pain from the cancer—I know the end’s coming. I’ve got a gun to my head. I’m sorry to leave you a mess.” I begged him to hold on.

I jumped in the car, made the thirty minute drive in twenty, knocked on the door, no answer. I walked in, saw lying on the floor a rifle and a handgun. I called out for my father, turned the corner into his room and bumped into him as he walked out. I took him to the hospital and they fixed his immediate problem, then scheduled surgery for the next morning.

I came in early, an hour before surgery. I prayed that somehow, in his pain, with no easy way out, that God would break through to my father. I read through Romans, sharing the gospel as clearly as I could. After half an hour of going from verse to verse, I finally looked at him and asked, “Dad, have you ever confessed your sins and asked Jesus Christ to forgive you?”

No . . .,” he said, then paused. Finally he added, “but I think it’s about time I did.”

My father prayed, confessed his sins and placed his faith in Christ that morning, just before they wheeled him into surgery. The surgery was successful.

Some time later I found out that months earlier, believing he was terminal and the pain was about to get worse, he had wanted to end his life. He had gone to several doctors and nurses in the fall asking to give him a pill, because didn’t want to leave me the mess from gun. They said “we can’t give you a pill—it’s illegal.” But one doctor said to him, “come back after the election. I’ll be able to help you then.”

My Dad was disappointed when the measure failed. He was counting on it. He was going to get that pill and have it near by, and when he got low enough, he would take it. I have absolutely no doubt in my mind that if my father had legal access to a poison a physician could guarantee would end his life, he would have used it. And if he would have, my father would have gone into a Christless eternity.

In the time of people’s pain and weakness they need the rest of us to reach out, help them, encourage them, tell them they are worth something. They don’t need us to pass them a pill and help get rid of them. I have several friends who work as chaplains in care centers. They have led many people to Christ in the final months of their lives. And many of these people, if they’d had a society-approved way to end their lives earlier, they would have. And they’d never reached a point of trusting Christ.

So I thank God for some Christians in the state of Washington who realized what was at stake—not just legislation but lives, not politics, but people. People for whom Christ died. People God created. People God has a purpose for, and over whose lives and deaths he alone has the prerogatives.

I thank God for some Christians who realized we are to love God and our neighbor. And who realized that preaching and prayer ring hollow—they have no credibility or effectiveness—unless accompanied by loving action in the name of Christ.

Photo by Daan Stevens on Unsplash

Randy Alcorn (@randyalcorn) is the author of over sixty books and the founder and director of Eternal Perspective Ministries